The myth of the myth of supervenience
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Supervenience is necessary co-variation between two sets of entities (properties, facts, objects, etc.). In the good old days, supervenience was considered a useful philosophical tool with a wide range of applications in the philosophy of mind, metaethics, epistemology, and elsewhere. In recent years, however, supervenience has fallen out of favor, giving place to grounding, realization, and other, more metaphysically “meaty”, notions. The emerging consensus is that there are principled reasons for which explanatory theses cannot be captured in terms of supervenience, or as the slogan goes: “Supervenience Is Nonexplanatory” (SIN). While SIN is widely endorsed, it is far from clear what it amounts to and why we should believe it. In this paper, I will distinguish various theses that could be meant by it, and will argue that none of them is both interesting and plausible: on some interpretations of ‘explanatory’, we have no reason to believe that supervenience is unexplanatory, while on other interpretations, supervenience is indeed unexplanatory, but widely accepted textbook cases of explanatory relations come out as unexplanatory, too. This result raises doubts as to whether there is any interesting sense in which SIN is true, and suggests that the contemporary consensus about supervenience is mistaken.
KeywordsExplanation Explanatory relations Grounding Hyperintensionality Metaphysical explanation Supervenience
For helpful comments on and conversations about earlier versions of this paper I thank Karen Bennett, Nina Emery, Ghislain Guigon, Terry Horgan, Jon Litland, Mike Raven, Oron Shagrir, Alex Skiles, Elanor Taylor, Jessica Wilson, three anonymous referees, and audiences at the 2017 Central APA in Kansas City, the Third Annual Conference of the Society for the Metaphysics of Science at Fordham University, and talks given at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the University of Southampton, and the Research Group for the History and Philosophy of Science (RCH HAS) in Budapest.
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